By Karen Williamson
Cullman County Commissioners voted this week to pay $40,000 in outstanding debt incurred by former Parks and Recreation Board members for cabins at Smith Lake Park.
The debt stemmed from three cabins built at Smith Lake Park approximately four years ago at a combined cost of $60,000, according to Cullman County Park and Recreation Executive Director Robbie Camp.
On Tuesday, county attorney Dan Willingham said the former park board had $12,000 in funds and will to turn it over to the county to offset the debt owed to Peoples Bank for the cabins.
The balance in the park and recreation board account came from a donation by the Cullman County Park and Recreation Foundation Board.
The county took over the park system in August 2005 citing a lack of cooperation with the park board in place at the time.
“When we took the park system over, they had right at $180,000,” said Chairman Wiley Kitchens. “They had the money to buy all of the cabins.”
Former park board Chairman Rodger Abbott said the county cut off appropriations at that time, and board members had to pay salaries and operating expenses without any money coming in.
“We did a great job,” he said given the circumstances. He didn’t think anyone else could have done any better.
The county maintains Sportsman Lake Park, Smith Lake Park and a small park at Clarkson Covered Bridge. The master plan for an off-highway vehicles park was approved this week.
The parks bring in more than $500,000 a year, according to Camp, and the county provides $290,000 in funding. The $800,000 in yearly operating expenses breaks down to approximately $67,000 a month.
The park and recreation board kept its own checking account, so the commission does not have access to those records, said Kitchens.
Kitchens said he did not know what board members spent the money on but did say they had substantial legal fees.
“They spent a lot of money, $18,000 or $19,000, on a lawsuit that they eventually dropped because they didn’t have any money. It was just a frivolous lawsuit.”
Attorney Pamela Nail said she could not recall what she was paid in legal fees but said it was not $18,000.
“I didn’t charge them to attend their meetings,” she said.
Larry G. Cooke, a certified public accountant, performed two audits of park board books for $4,000 each, according to Gail Cooke. Cooke said the company wrote checks for the park board. She said the board paid in advance on cabin payments on occasion and had paid through Nov. 2006 when it was taken over.
County Commission records for Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 30, 2007 show approximately $827,000 in salary and operating expenses for county parks and $327,800 in appropriations. The budgeted figure for appropriations was $290,000. The figure went up for improvements, according to Gary Teichmiller, chief administrative officer.
The parks have all seen major improvements since the county took over the park system and as a result are generating strong revenues, said Kitchens.
“With all of the improvements we have done, we paid for the improvements plus employees (salaries) and still really didn’t dip into the county’s reserve,” Kitchens said.
The $37,800 in increased appropriations for 2006 through 2007 came from park revenues, according to Kitchens.
Improvements at Sportsman Lake Park include repaving the road which cost $54,000 and the addition of walking and bike trails.
Kitchens said the majority of improvements have been completed at Smith Lake Park.
“We added 90 new campsites with full hookups,” said Kitchens. “All of this was paid for by revenues generated by the parks.”
Revenue for Smith Lake Park comes from cabin and trailer rentals, tent sites, recreational vehicle parking, park admission, swimming, golfing and concession stand sales, according to Camp.
There are nine cabins at Smith Lake Park that rent for $55 a night. The county bought five Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in August for about $2,500 each, according to Camp. The trailers rent for $70 a night.
A lot of people rent the FEMA trailers, according to Kitchens.
“They would rather have them than the cabins,” he said.
There are 237 rentals at the park, said Camp. Of those, 61 are tent sites and 114 have full hookups.
In May, commissioners appointed three new board members to the current park board including former park board member Gary Dean, Jimmy Haynes and Gerald Schafer. Dean said he voted against the lawsuit along with former board member Ronald Dillashaw. When the former board got down to three members, Dean resigned effectively shutting down the board, since three members are required to conduct business and hold meetings.
Wayne Williams and Hilton Angle were the other two former park board members.
“I don’t have any regrets at all about the county taking the parks system over because I think when you look at the parks now compared to what they were then by the park board, you just go drive through them and look at them and see the difference. I make no apologies,” Kitchens said Tuesday.
By Karen Williamson